Battered, bruised, down, but not out

Well I think that goes down as the most unusual Boxing Day I’ve ever spent. I woke after fitful sleep. I can’t lie on my left side because my shoulder hurts – it took a bang when I fell back from the wardrobe. I can’t lie on my right side as my swollen right eye hurts so I have to try sleeping on my back and have been advised to keep my head elevated by at least two pillows. I feel like I’ve been laid out in the coffin already but in my birthday suit not my best suit.  And I have to get clothes past the culprits before I can go – that’s top brass I can tell you.
884C9FD7-FA38-474C-8645-FCCC2C72CCEBHowever the hospital Hospital Puerto del Mar want me to report at 09:30 so off I set in a taxi the hotel has kindly called after my profuse apologies for their disturbed night of gore and mayhem. I had to take a taxi because from the interior of an ambulance I had no idea where we had gone and when I came out I got straight into a taxi back to the now calm hotel without really being very aware of my route or surroundings.

I report to Triage 1 and a ticket is printed out for me along with a page of sticky labels with my name, date of birth, admission number and cause of admission ‘Caida’ – fall. I wait for about 15 minutes before being called into Trauma 1 to explain to a doctor exactly what had happened. Well I knew sock, calcetin, take off, quitar, caida, fall, armorio, wardrobe and manija, handle. So I manage to concoct a narrative after which he nods sagely and sits me down to examine the cuts and stitches which he approves, does a name and number, day of the week, address in Spain etc as a concussion test and says he’d like a face specialist to check me over to see if the stitches will suffice or whether I need plastic surgery. Back to the waiting room for rather longer this time. Just like English hospitals there are too many people for the seats available and the one unisex loo is out of service. So I stand patiently, glad I’d had the foresight to bring my Kindle on which I was reading Kamila Shamsie’s excellent Burnt Shadows which combines Japan with India and Pakistan in a timely, tense tale.

A lady in blue with a face mask comes by and somehow I know she’s my face doctor. She must have seen a few others and then after a while she calls me into Trauma 2 and checks my eyesight with torch and fingers to count – no double vision and I’m glad that’s an index finger you’re holding up. She declares that the sutures will do the job and that no plastic surgery is required but they do want me to go to x-ray to check that no bones were broken – I think I would have known. So back to stand in a corridor outside the radiography room until my name is called. Eventually I enter and two young rather giggly radiographers are keen to know how to pronounce my unusual nombre. They try Raggett for size a few times and I tell them they’ve got it. A quick dose of rays and then back to the waiting area. The original doctor sees me again and tells me a nurse will give me a tetanus jab and dress the corner of my brow which persists in bleeding (sangrando) adding another verb participle to my vocabulary. He also said I should go to my Primary Care Centre in three days (it’ll be Monday at my surgery which will be the fifth day so maybe the stitches can come out too which he suggested should be in a week). The nurse then stings me horribly trying to clean up the mess a bit more and applies a big cotton pad with tape over my eye to stop the bleeding. Then I’m told I’m free to go and thank them all profusely for what has been excellent attention to a stupid accident. The worst part of it is that I had discarded a previous pair of freebie Bam socks because they kept slipping on my wood floors. Total idiot. Also I once heard a radio show a while back in which the presenters were discussing how sitting down to put socks on and off was a sign of old age. From now on I’m old.

I need a pharmacy and a loo by now so I walk away from the Emergency Department where I note I’ve been for just on three hours so I stride off towards what I believe to be the main Avenida Juan Carlos II that runs north-south through the new part of the city. It is and I find a pastry shop with coffee and churros so I set into those, recalling from goodness knows where that after a shock it was good to eat or drink something sweet. Well I’m not putting sugar in my coffee but a sugar coated churro will do the job. It also of course has a loo. Refreshed and emboldened I decide to catch a bus back up to the old city and my hotel. It worked fine with a one euro ten cents flat fare and there’s a pharmacy opposite the hotel so I get my prescription filled but have to repeat my now more fluent tale of Christmas Night. Jokes about amateur bullfighting and what the other guy looks like happen in Spanish too but armed with amoxicillin I go back to my now spotless room. I take pills and then a kind of, I suppose, post-shock lethargy sets in. I did of course sleep very little during the night and sit in an armchair and drift off a bit. Then alert again and turning on iPad mini to watch the footie later, I realise that what I’d written about Christmas Eve and Day had not saved properly so I had to recreate all that whereupon several photos duplicated themselves. Foreign internet, weird WordPress or just DRD – defective Raggett digits I’ll never know.

I feel I ought to go out and grab some lunch before it’s time for Prime to watch Watford at Sheffield United – my Blades-supporting nephew has wished us Happy Christmas and more wins but not today. But by the time I’ve thought about where or what it’s too late so I settle down to see the excitement of a lead unfold followed by a stupid penalty for their equaliser. So that’s draws home and away but at least this one had a proper goal and we’re off the bottom of the table. The later Leicester v Liverpool match is much more exciting and after that I decide that fasting will do me no harm and retire again for a disturbed but better sleep.

Friday morning sees me shower (avoiding getting stitches wet) pack and take my bags to the car. I then go for breakfast in the Plaza Espana and realise that my decision to visit the chapel with the Goyas before driving back to Malaga was muddled with 24 hours clock confusion – my flight is at 4.25 not the 6.25 in my head. However I can still make it easily albeit it not by the fully scenic route intended. But it gives my time to admire a few more of the fabulous buildings and squares of Cadiz  – just why is it only men taking breakfast? – and amble through its cobbled streets to find that the Oratorio is open.

I go up to the chapel in which there are five frescoes around the ceiling, three by Goya although from the distance and the lighting you’d be hard pressed to tell it if you’d just happened to wander in in ignorance. Still it had been on the tick list.

Back one last time to the car park – huge so I always wrote my bay number on the ticket – set up TomTom for the car rental place and off I go. While we had previously gone all along the coast down to Tarifa to look across at Africa and then along past Gibraltar, today’s faster route went diagonally across Cadiz province giving me only a fleeting view of Gibraltar – It’ll be interesting to see what happens about that in the next few years. Then it was along through celeb/gangster country Estepona, Puerto Banus, Mijas, Fuengirola, Marbella, and on to Malaga. They are amused to see that the car has no damage, just me, so my tale is told again with winces and sympathetic handshakes before a shuttle bus whisks me into a surprisingly quiet Malaga airport. I’m quickly through security and off to the Sala VIP lounge thanks to my subscription to Priority Pass. It’s also nearly empty and I catch up on emails and messages before heading to the gate.

E6CC61F6-91DC-49F3-A7D6-51E11188EC4B As is the new norm with Ryanair the Priority Q is longer than the paupers’. But in, I think, a first for me we board through an airbridge not by walking across the tarmac and climbing steps. The captain urges people to stow their stuff quickly as we can actually make our 16:25 take off slot if they get a move on – since we’d seen him and the cabin crew walk past us twenty minutes earlier maybe they could have got the plane loading sooner. However we’re in the air on time and I can construct the last blog from this excellent but eventful Iberian adventure. Obviously I’ll have to post it later when there’s some wifi – probably back home. Where I now am.

Well after a perfect journey back as far as my car at Stansted after which I endured a thirty minute hold up for an accident on the A12 and then a diversion for a burst water main close to home in Kidbroke. Is that an omen?

Nochebuena, Dia bueno y Noche terrible

As I said yesterday, I had plans for Christmas Eve and none for Christmas Day. Plan one was to visit the market where I remembered the usual bright stalls of fruit and veg, hams and cheeses and especially here fish. (Tick 1) img_3965

Plan two  was to find a little cafe for breakfast that Dee and I had frequented on previous visits. (Tick 2) I have an orange juice, coffee and bread with ham and tomato in Plaza Mentidero, a pleasant square where many others were starting the day in similar fashion. From there I walk through the Parque Genoves along the side of the bay of Cadiz and make my way to the location of Plan three the Oratorio of the Holy Cave which has three large Goya frescos – some of his very rare religious works. (Cross 1) Today counts as a holiday and so it’s closed. I’ll try to catch it before I leave on Friday. So I next get the car from the car park and head for Medina Sidonia one of the white towns I’d heard about but not visited. I saw too much of the suburbs of Chiclana de la Frontera on the way but did fill up with petrol before catching site of the impressive town, thought to be the oldest town in Europe.

img_0046-1

I wind my way up to it (Tick 3) and find a buzzing square and lots of very steep streets (I’m beginning to share my late friend Toddy’s dislike for ‘up’) but persevere and am rewarded with a fine church but also a view back towards Cadiz in which you just see the elegant suspension bridge that carries the road in the city.

I walk back down to the plaza and take a beer and some tapas as a band of hairy rockers are entertaining people in the Plaza. They are joined by a lively young lady fiddler and are not bad at all, but when they start in on Jingle Bell Rock, I know that’s my cue to move on.img_3997

I retrieve my car and head off towards Jerez de la Frontera, somewhat staggered by the vast numbers of wind turbines everywhere and being sorely tempted on the way by another white town Arcos de la Frontera perched on its sandstone ridge – there’ll be more up so I park that one for next time.

We visited Jerez several years ago and enjoyed a bodega visit so I thought I’d go back and see how it was now. Apart from additional suburban sprawl – does anyone need that many DIY warehouses? – the centre looked familiar and the Parking Mercado Central displayed a green LIBRE sign so I though (Tick – lucky day). However after luring me down the ramp, the ticket machine pronounced COMPLETO and I had to wait for two cars to leave before I could slip in. I headed off towards the alcazar and the patio in front of it which are still there and sherry producers are in every corner (there’s a Gonzalez before the Byas hidden by the tree).

 

As indeed are oranges, literally falling from the trees and as we’re in Cadiz province not far from Seville a chap’s mind starts to think marmalade in a couple of months time. What a chap’s mind had forgotten from previous visits is that nochebuena, Christmas Eve, is the big day when everything closes at six thirty so that friends and families can all gather for the big meal. But before they go home they go mad – well in Jerez anyway. The streets were nigh on impassable with revellers carrying bottles of sherry, wine and brandy as they walked. At every corner bar was an impromptu song and dance fest. In the lower picture the guy in blue is encouraging us all to join in and sing. I did manage to get a beer before heading back to Cadiz.

img_4017

img_4025-1

I think there had been a similar walkabout in Cadiz too as many families were making their way homewards. The only restaurant near me that was open was offering only a special 65 euro seven course menu which would have been completely wasted given my aged lack of appetite. So it was crisps, nuts and wine and thank you for the lunchtime tapas.

Christmas Day dawned bright and clear and I thought I’d walk along the Atlantic promenade as we had rarely gone this far south on previous visits. I started out just after nine and it was a fine walk with surfers making some progress, far too many dog walkers and my planned breakfast having to wait until 11:30 by which time I’d walked down the entire promenade, into the dunes and back up the beach before the Blue Dolphin came to my rescue. This was after eight kilometres so I was peckish by now.

As I walked along the beach I saw these goal posts and wondered if I should suggest that we paint ours yellow at the Vic as it might give our ‘strikers’ a clearer target to aim at.

6CFA4D38-5997-41E2-AC85-4388F6F4D411I then headed inland and walked up through the main thoroughfare past the football stadium – unimpressive, , a beautiful brick and stone tobacco warehouse and through the park of the five continents – except we know there are seven now don’t we?

When I get back to the main square my feet are beginning to ache a bit despite my present to myself – new socks. They were a freebie from a company called Bam who make clothes from bamboo and send out trial sets to wheedle you in to subscribing, so I thought I’d bring them with me and give them an outing. Most places are open again for Christmas Day and I have soup, bread and olives for lunch in front of the Cathedral with a fine glass of Albariño. I can’t believe I’m sitting in the sun at 23 degrees on Christmas Day. Then I head off to check that the Cafe Royalty is open this evening – it is until 11.00 so I book for eight thirty and come back to change into a shirt, jacket and trousers rather than jeans and tee shirt of the marathon morning’s march.

55AB6DCF-9E1B-47E4-A8C8-60CCE937BEB2

32E063A1-3B28-40BD-BF47-CC6DB961AFD7
The elegant interior of our favourite Cafe Royalty a real blast from the past and the food’s good too.

On my way back it’s all looking very Christmassy and it’s been a very fine day so far.
D14E5A01-2351-44BA-B98C-9F6E477E6E76

Then disaster strikes. As I prepare for bed feeling quite sleepy after my day’s exertions, my new Christmas socks prove very slippy on the marble floor and I career across the room to head butt the wardrobe which has severely pointy brass handles. The room immediately looks like a set from a horror movie and as I ring for help, blood drips everywhere – big tip on leaving for wonderful night staff – who arranged an ambulance and I returned from hospital about three am looking like this – appropriate for Boxing Day! Thanks to my EHI 111 card all this attention is provided professionally and complete free – no falling over next year then. Thanks Johnson.

I had to go back this morning for x-rays, anti-tetanus, a course of antibiotics and a new dressing. I’m a bit tired (but not emotional, I promise!) and am thankfully back in time to watch us not quite beat Sheffield United, well at least we didn’t lose.

9B28D758-D7FD-4C2D-A00E-D7F8EC567EB5
The ghoul of Christmas present

Crumbs and Crikey!

‘That’s a bit more like it’ I thought as I opened my curtains on Sunday morning. That’s why I’m in Spain for Christmas – clear blue skies and already 16 degrees. What a great day to drive to Torrox for the Fiesta de Migas. Because of the weather and for nostalgia’s sake, I decided to take the trusty N340 along the coast rather than the motorway. We stayed once in Velez Malaga in the mid 1970s and driving along to see the caves at Nerja involved large stretches of driving over compacted stone clippings that were the basis for a road later – much later I suspect – to be tarmaced. It weaves along now through waterside developments that weren’t there 40 years ago. It’s still a nice drive with frequent glimpses of sea to the right and brought me in timely fashion to a small bar in Torrox Costa in time for a quick coffee before seeking the bus up to join in the festivities to which I’d been invited by Loz Blume a fellow Watford fan who relocated to Spain four years ago.

I asked the proprietor where buses departed for Torrox Pueblo and was advised to leave my car where it was and walk five minutes up the road. I came to a Lidl where the checkout lady explained that the bus stop was just opposite and a few metres back. I’d walked past it! By the way there are now almost as many Lidl and Aldi stores in Spain as there are Chinese Bazaars. Fortunately a bus arrived within a few minutes and I was soon climbing the narrow streets to the main square. As a WhatsApp from Loz confirmed – just follow the noise. As I entered the square arms shot up in greeting and beckoned me over to the front of the stage where three young ladies, a percussionist and a guitarist were performing very catchily such that all the local ladies of a certain age were dancing enthusiastically. Hugs and kissed all round as Loz and I reintroduced ourselves after first meeting at a Watford City Orns outing to a T20 cricket match at Hove probably about eight years ago. The kisses were for his sister Michelle and other female friends. Beers were nobly produced and Loz seemed genuinely delighted to have the copy of the book I wrote for the club’s charity’s 25th anniversary – it had just been his birthday so it had to double as that and a Christmas gift. The music stopped, beers were finished and we began the further climb up to the car park at the top of the village which is where free wine and migas were on offer.

Loz and Michelle with a sample of rather sweet Malaga wine

We walked through the market stalls and looked (Loz’s experience of four Migas tells) for the shortest queue to wait for our dish of migas which are bread crumbs fried in olive oil served with a tomato, orange and onion salad. They are prepared in wok-like pans over a wood fire:

And then dished up on plastic plates with a spoon like this:

It’s a hark back to field labourers’ lunches and the Fiesta in in its 38th iteration so I guess that’s what they used to have back then. They were very tasty and filling – exactly their original purpose. We then move off to Loz’s house to catch the day’s main event Watford v Manchester United which I was missing because they changed the game to Sunday for TV – a blessing as it transpired. As we moved off from the car park the crowds were swelling so I think we had made excellent queuing time – we did notice that our came from the Gluten Free line so that may have accounted for the smaller queue.

And then Crickey! We only went and won! Watford 2-0 Manchester United. First home win of the season! Only the second three points. Total jubilation in the Blume house saluted with beer and tortilla before I then took Michelle back to Malaga Airport as she was due to fly back to Edinburgh that evening. She had arranged a ride with Mark, a neighbour who does occasional taxi runs, but as a Spurs fan he was pleased to be able to stay with Loz and watch the second match after running us down to my car in Torrox Costa. He won’t have been quite as excited about the result and may have preferred to be on the road to Malaga. Tottenham 0-2 Chelsea. We whizzed back along the motorway in the setting sun – why are my sunglasses in the desk by the front door? – getting to know each other and hoping that our paths will cross again. After three fairly hectic days and the prospect of highlights on Match of the Day later on, I went from the airport back to the Parador, wrote the previous blog, had a fine plate of jamon y queso and a glass or two of rioja watching the twinkling lights of Malaga by night. Once again I had confirmation about why I was here.

Malaga Day 2 – art, cars, lights and music

I had a bit of a lie in this morning and decided to take the car since I was going to visit the Automobile Museum which I thought would be interesting after seeing Cars at the V&A earlier this month. By a miracle my worst fears about parking the car on arrival were swept away by the fact that it has free parking in front – well I suppose they are all about cars. But first I went to see the other collection on the same site in a disused tobacco factory – an even more impressive building than Carmen’s in Seville. This was the Russian Museum which had three exhibitions. The first was devoted to the depiction of women in Russian art over the last two centuries and was more interesting for the social observation of costumes and customs than for the intrinsic merit of the canvases displayed – far too many in my humble opinion. Eyes started glazing over by room 5, beautifully displayed and labelled though they were. Given some of the obvious disparities between the have and have not classes it was pretty obvious why the Revolution happened. The next exhibit was the work of Nicholas Roehrich of whom I’d never heard. There were some amazing landscapes and allegorical paintings in alternately sombre and vibrant colours. He travelled a lot and ended his life in India where a wall full of square oils showed the Himalayas in all the variety of lighting stages that mountains pass through. He was a revelation but cars called so I’m afraid I skipped the third show featuring the life and works of the poet Anna Akhmatova.

The Automobile Museum was just fabulous, charting the history of vehicles from earliest steam driven carriages through the vintage cars from the USA and Europe to future concept studies. It’s massive but very engaging as the official title is Museum of Automobiles and Fashion and beside each vehicle was a designer dress or outfit from the era so you could imagine these elegant folk installed behind their chauffeurs or later taking the wheel themselves. One car reminded me of Peter Blake’s painted Mersey Ferry, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, that I’d seen last week only to discover that it was painted by Sonia Delaunay in 1928.

P1010096

There were a lot of very sleek and beautiful beasts on show but I was left feeling very proud of Jaguar’s contribution to motor car design. And they had some funny ideas at Rolls-Royce too!

I then stopped off at the bus station to get a ticket for tomorrow’s planned trip to Torrox to share the Fiesta de Migas and watch Watford v Man United with an expat Watford friend. Sadly the first bus on a Sunday was at one and takes an hour and a half which would leave no time for fiesta and the last one back was at five which would leave no time after football so after a WhatsApp exchange I concluded that I’d do abstemious fiesta-ing and drive for convenience. Thence to my next port of call which was the outpost of the Paris Centre Pompidou which opened here last March. It’s an underground structure with a glitzy glazed Rubik’s cube on top. I can see it clearly from my balcony and thought it would be worth a visit.

Inside it’s a vast space with equally vast canvases and installations which appealed in varying measure. The highlights for me were a massive Miro and an equally large scale Peter Doig but I was also amused by the sheep installation that filled the first room. Sadly they wouldn’t let us sit on them despite their destiny as stools.

When I got back outside I could see my balcony up on the Gibralfaro Hill, providing a nice symmetry. The Centre is on a newish (2011) development of the waterfront in Malaga called Muelle Uno. It has trendy shops and restaurants – chain and individual and I decided it was time for some seafood and a glass of Verdejo a favourite white from next to La Rioja (will that count Les?).

My room second floor just right of the tree.

I retrieved the car from the parking under Centre Pompidou with some distress. As I descended in the lift I saw no pay station and assumed it would be near the exit. It wasn’t so I had a stream of three needing to reverse so that I could go back to the machine – hidden behind the lift – and then emerge. Much tooting and muttering about Los Ingleses – expect more in future. I returned to the hotel and parked up and then started the walk back down when a convenient bus arrived to save me the trouble. However I very nearly had to arm wrestle a huge French woman to get on board. She was determined to be first despite her lowly rank in the queue and had the bulk to determine the outcome. At the city centre bus stop I walked to the Museo Carmen Thyssen to admire the work of Spain’s eighteenth and nineteenth century painters. I recognised two or three from the recent Sorolla exhibition in London now back home and was struck by how art movements seemed to move across countries with similar preoccupations in Russia and Spain in the same periods. I was warned on entry that there was to be a concert at 19.00 so my visit was enhanced by the sound check for the orchestra and warm up exercises of the choir. I didn’t stay as there were few tickets left.

My friend Graham was in Malaga a few weeks ago and had recommended the restaurant Batik – if I could find it. I wandered through a few streets, stopping for the occasional beer in the odd neighbourhood bar and discovered that Batik was close to the Plaza de la Merced and the Teatro Romano. It was great recommendation with super carpaccio de jurado and tuna tatziki all washed down by a good Marques de Riscal. While I was there a couple of young ladies asked me to take their photo and we then got chatting. One of them worked in PR for Malaga Tourism so I offered my services should they need English copywriting or proofing. While we were conversing (pitching?) the most spectacular light show took place against the backdrop of the Alcazaba which in one sequence appeared to be self-destructing stone by stone. Something similar happens every year it seems. My homeward saunter was enlivened by superb temporary Christmas light displays:

and groups of musicians at seemingly every corner. One of them appeared to me to be the Andaluz equivalent of Morris (pace Pete and Richard) while another was an energetic jazz group none of whom could have been more than twenty five, a promising sign for live music in the south. Then it was a taxi up the hill, a glass of brandy and some light blogging.

Malaga Morris?
Young jazzers giving it some wellie

North and South (apologies to Mrs G)

And apologies for random pix – problems transferring from phone to iPad mini that won’t get all my emails! There will be an updated version later (done 03.01.2020)

My word! It’s nearly a year since I last posted on my blog. It’s been a strange year – my first for ages without foreign travel until now, 20 December. Unless of course you count a trip to the Peoples’ Republic of Merseyside as foreign. That’s where this last week began meeting up with friends for a football match, a gig and food, drink and conversation. In fact it was the second trip in just over a month and previously I’d managed to get up to Crosby beach to marvel at the Gormleys following his recent show at the Royal Academy. And on the way back I managed to find a Japanese garden hidden away in Sale.

For this latest visit, I drove up uneventfully on Friday and met up with Richard and Alison for a couple of beers and a fine dinner in Bacaro. Our former favourite tapas bar La Vinya has closed and become something trendier and more expensive but Bacaro served Italian-tinged tapas with a great atmosphere and a good wine list so we had a fun evening. Watford v Liverpool was the 12.30 kick off on Saturday so we met up in Dr Duncan’s for a pint at 11.00 (they told me on the phone they would open as usual at 11 but in fact opened at 10 because of the early kick off), Some of us thought there was time for a second pint but this in fact meant that our bus ride to Anfield took ages and we only just got in to see kick off. Others – Fran and Matt – describe the game and although we lost we all left very encouraged by the improvement we had seen under our third manager of the season.

Many of our travelling Watford Hornets are also fans of Ian Prowse the singer-songwriter who leads the bands Pele and Amsterdam and our match coincided with his annual Liverpool Christmas concert – but that didn’t start until nine so what can you do for six hours in Liverpool? Visit the Tate? The Walker is a fine art gallery or there’s the Beatles Story. But hell no! Liverpool also has some of the finest pubs in the country many of which I was already familiar with and with assistance from Mr Prowse himself and artist Tony Brown, I was able to devise a ten venue pub crawl to occupy the waiting hours. I should say that Ian and Tony, and his wife Lorraine, have been friends since 2002 when Dee and I made a series of educational videos for Teaching Scouse as a Second Language for the publishers Macmillan. Tony provided the studio backdrop and was interviewed about his work. Ian was a studio guest who discussed the Merseyside music scene and played us out at the end of the show. We also filmed his gig at the Cavern for the programme. So nearly twenty years on we are all friends still and have met up at intervals during further filming or football trips to the great city.

Armed with their input we embarked on a walking tour of a varied selection of Liverpool’s boozers at the worst time possible. It’s Saturday afternoon, it’s nearly Christmas and all the pubs are full. However we divert to grab some food then take in the Victorian splendour of the Philharmonic, the bustling fun of Ye Crack and quirky layout of The Pilgrim, the mezzanine melee of Mackenzies whisky bar before descending on one of my favourites The Globe. One regular inquired why on earth I’d brought a pub crawling group to Liverpool’s smallest pub. Because it’s quirky, friendly, keeps its beer well, is close to the centre and has the steeply sloping floor that makes you think you’re half cut before you’ve started. Ah well alright, he said, that’s why I’m here. Tony and Lorraine joined us there and I’m afraid the second stage of the itinerary was abandoned for the next visit as we had at last found somewhere to sit, were with Liverpool friends and enjoying a great atmosphere. After a brief aberration on my part in the Phil, we restricted ourselves to halves and so were still able to stand and enjoy what was to follow.

Then it was a swift walk through Lime Street Station to the O2 Academy for Prowsey’s Christmas Party. After a slight hold up while some technical sound and lighting issues were resolved – well it is rock n roll – Ian and his superb fifteen piece band treated us to two hours of Pele and Amsterdam’s greatest hits with a few well aimed political comments and a joint version with Brian Nash of Frankie Goes to Hollywood fame of their smash hit The Power of Love. The talent on display was stunning, Ian’s writing is always pointed and his melodies so strong that I have had Pele/Amsterdam ear worms all week. Some of us were invited to the after party and lovely though it would have been to spend some time with Ian it was too hip and too loud for an oldie like me so we congratulated him and thanked him for a wonderful evening, group hugged and retired graciously.

Amsterdam gig 12.2019Sunday found four of us regulars meeting up for brunch. We met at Castle Street Coffee according to the menu but called something quite different on its main signage. This caused some confusion although I thought my description of corner of Castle Street and Dale Street was clear enough – not so when you’re looking for a sign that barely exists. The food and coffee were fine, the vibe laid-back Sunday morning. What it did have was a phenomenon in the loos’ hand-driers. Now you know how they usually emit a blue light along with the whoosh of warm air – well these had pools of red and blue light thus appealing to both halves of the city (for those not familiar with Liverpool football there are bitter rivals: Liverpool play in red; Everton in blue) Great marketing effort we thought.

Pete and Graham departed for Bradford but since Fran was booked on the 18:45 train she kindly agreed to accompany me to Sefton Park for a nostalgic walk and to admire the Palm House newly restored since I was last there. It also featured a ukulele band playing a mixture of carols and standards in an idiosyncratic setlist.

Since Frances had never seen the famous Liverpool waterfront from the opposite bank of the Mersey we whizzed through the tunnel and climbed to the top of the Birkenhead Priory Tower – just about made it that’s a lot of steps up – and while damp, grey and drizzly by now, the view across the river was well worth the trip. We then repaired to what had been my local when I spent six months in Liverpool on the aforementioned English language video shoot and edit, The Excelsior, which remains a proper good old fashioned pub, much to my delight. Next stop so as to be close to the station was another of my personal favourites The Crown Hotel. I was a bit worried because Lorraine had said last night that it had recently been refurbed, but she also added that they’d done it really well. And she was right. It’s cleaner, the panelling looks brighter and the ornate plaster ceiling is still a great place to hunt for the designer’s signature cigar butt trademarks – six of them apparently but Dee and I only ever found five. Fran departed for London and I walked back down Dale Street to sample a new-to-me tapas bar as a possible replacement for La Vinya. However it closed at seven for some strange reason. An alternative presented itself nearby in Mowgli a chic modern Indian restaurant with an exciting menu and dishes served in snazzy stainless steel round tiffin canisters and which are eaten from a metal plate. All very different, very tasty and from the queues as I left, very popular.

Before driving back down on Monday I had arranged to meet Tony and Lorraine for breakfast in The Quarter on Faulkner Street in the elegant Georgian Quarter of the city which is so full of architectural surprises. I retrieved my car from the car park where it had been overnight at the hotel’s discounted rate and proceeded through the centre and up Mount Pleasant to Hope and Faulkner Streets. Now some of these are cobbled, others are potholed but nonetheless I was a bit perturbed by the volume of road noise I was generating. As I parked I saw that the rear offside tyre was as flat as the proverbial. Like a fool I asked the staff if they knew of a local tyre place – which they did – but also suggested that as I was a member I call the AA – doh! At this point Tony and Lorraine arrived and I explained my predicament which slightly dominated our breakfast conversation

But we did manage to have a good catch up before the friendly patrolman arrived. So with farewell hugs and them insisting on picking up the bill, I went out to the car. The AA man told me he used to live round here and that where I had breakfast used to be McCall’s grocery store in his day and he remembered being sent from home to buy a quarter of spam for tea. I love this kind of verbal history and the fact that everybody in the city seem to be so friendly and chatty, examples of which we had in spades during the pub crawl as I had a Watford badge on my polo shirt which was a frequent conversation starter.

The tyre was inflated sufficiently for me to follow the yellow van to a discount tyre yard in Wavertree where he assured me I would get quality tyres at the best price in the city. That may well have been the case but for the fact that when I produced that box labelled “Locking wheel nut” from the glovebox it was empty. We turfed everything out of the car and couldn’t find it anywhere. So I phoned the nearest Toyota main dealer to check whether they had a master key that would resolve the issue. They did, so my kindly tyre folk gave me a further top up blast of air and I set off for Bootle. It took a while to sort out by very efficient Toyota folk but eventually I was on the road back south with a new tyre and a new key on order. I had hoped to do most of the drive in the small amount of daylight mid-December offers but it was already dark by the time I reached the M6 to head south. The rest of the journey was uneventful I’m pleased to say and I was home in time to do some last minute online Christmas shopping, wrap some presents and then make something to eat as breakfast, delicious though it was, had been eight and a half hours ago with only a few mints to keep up the blood sugar during the drive.

The rest of the week has screamed by rather like most of this mad year. I spent a great day at Tate Modern with my friend Jadwiga on Wednesday with a little exhibition viewing in the form of Dora Marr (better photographer than painter in our view since you ask, but good that this showed her to be her own person not just consigned to history as one of Picasso’s women) and lots of tea and coffee drinking (well a little champagne) and conversation before and after. Thursday saw Grandad Santa deliver to the grandchildren who will be in Manchester for Christmas while I’ll be in Malaga and Cadiz. As the flight is at 07:20 I drove up to the Holiday Inn Express at Stansted for the night and a week’s parking.

Standing in pouring rain waiting to climb the steps into the plane I’m quite pleased to be heading off to the south of Spain where the temperature was 21 degrees yesterday so fingers crossed.

I’ve now arrived and it is 21 degrees but grey and drizzly so while I have a balcony with a great view over Malaga I won’t be sipping cava on it today I fear. Also I’ve just had an email ping in with some work for my Dutch agents so I’d better get on with it – holidays have to be paid for after all.

Boxing Day Walk

Well it’s a tradition to go for a walk on Boxing Day but as I had totted up about thirty miles over the last two days, I had planned a visit today to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which is less than ten minutes from the hotel. I set off around nine in time to take breakfast on the way and arrive at opening time at 10 when I hoped it would be less busy than later in the day. The streets were totally different today – still plenty of Chinese tourists – but lots of Portuguese people grabbing a bite before going to the office, workers in hard hats everywhere, cranes swinging overhead – like most major cities, Lisbon will be lovely when it’s finished. With a fresh orange juice, a cinnamon croissant and the obligatory pastel de nata inside me I arrived at the foundation and followed signs through a large, very dark and leafy park to the main entrance.

I knew from earlier emails that I’d get in for half price as an senior and happily parted with my 7 euros. As I walked out just over four hours later it felt like good value.

Gulbenkian made most of his money from oil in Iran and the Gulf and as well as being an avid collector of ancient and modern art and artefacts also instituted a series of cultural and educational programmes. There are two main areas: The Founder’s Collection and The Modern Collection at opposite sides of the park. I started in the antiquities building with a sense that I was back in the Getty Mansion in LA, surrounded by a similar array of amazing pieces from ancient Egypt – how does glass survive 24 centuries? – encompassing pottery and jewellery as well. I was struck by the nautical theme of the last few days with this bronze from 500 BCE and also by the clarity and spaciousness of the galleries. I also fell for the Egyptian cat and her kittens.

I suspect that even on busy days you would be able to move around and read the captions without too much of a struggle. It was also a pleasing feature to catch glimpses of the garden through the large windows. The exterior is a bit brutalist for my taste but you forget all that concrete once you are in these intriguing galleries.

There’s a progression though Greek, Roman and a lot of Islamic art given the Gulf connection – lovely tiles and carpets and illustrated manuscripts. I ambled happily through the rooms until arriving at the French collection – all that overgilded, overblown Versailles furniture – not for me! But then the big surprise which proved I did a bit of reading but not enough, but then of course it wouldn’t have been a surprise. Gulbenkian also had an eye, or good advisers, for French, Italian, Dutch and English painters and OK Singer Sargent was American and his lovely Ladies Sleeping in a Punt under Willows is here. I positively wallowed in some excellent Corot landscapes, Guardi’s views of Venice which I have always slightly preferred to Canaletto, a brooding Rembrandt Old Man, a wonderful ahead-of-its-time Durer duck.

I was also taken by the Edo period Bento box with its flowery lacquer. Gainsborough and Lawrence portraits and two magnificent Turners, Monet, Manet and Degas completed the feast. Happy morning!

In the temporary exhibition space was a display of sculpture from Rodin’s time in Paris including one of the Burghers Of Calais. It was nicely arranged with section on standing poses, non-posed naturalistic work, group sculpture and nursing mothers. I then took myself across the park to the Modern building passing on the way a splendid amphitheatre at which concerts take place with a lake in the background. Should I ever be here for a performance I’ll bring a cushion as the concrete seats looked rather hard. Kenwood music by the Lake without the stately home.

The modern collection is mostly of Portuguese sculpture, painting and installations one of which really caught my eye and ear. There are 34 boom boxes forming the word NO while playing the spoken word YES in as many different tones.

Otherwise there were some interesting pieces and it’s odd isn’t it how you get drawn to particular items. I approached one thinking that’s good to find it was by Jim Dine and to another that proved a Rachel Whiteread, Maybe the old adage is true ‘Class will out’.

In suddenly realised it was after two o’clock and I needed to find somewhere to watch Watford v Chelsea so rushed back to the hotel only to look at my calendar and realise that it’s a 19:30 kick off. On my way I did pass a sports bar so I should be OK. My other afternoon disaster was to attempt to rent a car. I had always thought it would be a good idea to get out to Sintra and back via the coast at Cascais and Estoril. There was a conveniently close Europcar who could rent me a VW Polo or equivalent. The clerk then said: “I’d better tell you the price before we do the paperwork.” Doesn’t augur well. 210 euros for a one-day hire. The Raggett pauper reared again – I had a car in Spain for ten days in the summer for less than that. So if the rail strike permits (60-odd % running according to the news) I’ll go by train tomorrow. Then back to the hotel to blog and be amazed by the day’s Premier League earlier results – How many goals? – and prepare to pop off to the sports bar for 19:30.

The sports bar was part of a hotel and had a few scarves and shirts (Benfica, Sporting, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Man United) I didn’t bring mine with me or they’d have had a Watford one to add. What they did have was the game on TV and an IPA which truly sprung (or Springed) off the shelf:and at 6.5% it might well have had even me doing karaoke. As it was the few others in the bar were amused but not disturbed but my oohs and aahs and scream of delight at the equaliser. Their penalty was never in much doubt but the Portuguese commentators were adamant ours was a nailed on penalty on Deleofeu. They showed it in close up and from five angles about five times and were most agitated on our behalf. The bar had wings, nachos, burgers and other suitable sports bar fare so I consumed a modest supper during the second half. I’m not sure whether it was anger at the ref or the food but I had a very disturbed night and was actually quite glad I wasn’t going to be driving first thing in the morning.

Boas Festas, Bon Natal

After the quickest taxi journey to Stansted ever, I breezed through security and went to the Escape Lounge for a hearty breakfast and a thorough read of the Observer. After a leisurely hour I made my way to the gate to find that the Priority Boarding queue is twice as long as the non-Priority. That’s because Ryanair make you buy Priority is you want to take a cabin wheelie case on board. I didn’t want to check baggage for just a week away so I joined the end of the line and waited, and waited. The incoming flight was delayed and so boarding for us was delayed. Standing in the airbridge to the stairs that would take us to the plane – how much extra does it cost in airport fees to push the bridge to the door and avoid all that up and down with luggage that could be wheeled not carried? – a fellow traveller spotted my Watford FC lapel badge and offered, pointing at my chest, “Good result for you yesterday!” “Indeed” I replied “and in all honesty I didn’t expect it. West Ham have been on a great run and we’ve been playing well but not getting the results.” It transpired that he is a Man United fan and would have been in Cardiff but for the lack of trains to get him back to ensure catching this flight today. We chatted a little more about the beautiful game, managers and player commitment and then they actually put us on board but rows apart so the conversation ended there. I’ve always said that if someone finds that you are a football fan you’ll never be short of a conversation – sometimes enjoyable, sometimes rather boring. This could have gone on happily for the entire flight I suspect.

So having taken a cab to the airport, gone in a posh lounge, paid for priority boarding, when I get to Lisbon I decide to take the pauper’s option to get to the hotel. This involved walking a very short distance to the Metro station, buying a rechargeable Via Viagem card and taking the Red Line (actually called Linea Vermelha which struck a chord as one of the pieces in my Japan book is about Vermillion) to Saldanha which looked the nearest station on the map. It wasn’t as I learnt after finally making it through a maze of hilly streets to be told I should have gone to the end of the line at Sao Sebastiao which is five minutes closer. Also Lisbon’s streets are paved with annoying small squares of stone which wreak havoc on the wheels of your suitcase.

I checked in to a surprisingly large room and went for a quick orientation ramble around the neighbourhood, finding the Blue Line station for tomorrow’s outing and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation for Boxing Day. Back at the hotel for a beer (two actually as it was happy hour and they twisted my arm) I caught the end of Everton going down 2-6 to Spurs and then watched as local side Benfica put in 6 again to Braga’s 2. How often do you witness two 6-2 score lines on the same day?

It was Sunday night and the restaurant options were limited but the suggestion of Miguel at reception that I walk to the other end of the street (not very long) to Colina was a great choice. It’s a neighbourhood locale filled with families, some of whom I followed down the road from church, with a buzzing atmosphere and very tasty food.

I had a fish soup with four huge prawns and then a speciality from the area of spiced pork with clams which went down well. Having recently discovered in the UK a Portuguese grape called Alicante Bouschet at my local Laithwaites, I asked if they had one and the best they could do was a blend with Cab Sauv. It slid down very nicely anyway. A brisk walk through a cool evening – down to 8 degrees – and the sleep of the traveller.

Spain from E to D

Saturday was the big drive day traversing Spain to the north of Madrid. I didn’t get to prepare brilliantly for it. I’d had a very good dinner on Friday in the parador, carrot (lovely word in Spanish zahanoria) and orange soup followed by oxtail in crispy filo parcels with grilled aubergine, courgettes and peppers. Having only eaten a breakfast croissant and some crisps with a beer all day I was peckish and this went down very nicely with a glass or two of Ramon Bilbao rioja. I went and illustrated the blog, posted it and began to feel a bit nauseous. Not common for me at all. It settled and I went to bed but couldn’t sleep for ages and just as I was drifting off a mosquito whined by. Lights on, magazine at the ready but I couldn’t spot it. Brain clicks on in my doziness – I packed jungle formula for down south but why not here too? So I spray myself liberally and pull a sheet over my head. Eventually I hear no more mozzie and drift off for what can only have been an hour before the people two rooms along from me decide it’s time to check out – who checks out at 4 am unless you’re in an airport hotel? They have noisy children, lots of luggage and take ages. Fitful dozing follows until deep sleep at I guess around 7 – not what’s needed with a long day’s drive ahead. So I spring awake at 8:15 in a panic and am out and on the road by 8:40 only a bit later than intended. Just for the record Tortosa to Zamora  by the non-toll route is 660 kilometres and I had wondered once or twice about the wisdom of doing it on my own.

E to D? Spain has two major rivers (well they might count the Quadalquivir in Andalusia too), the Ebro which flows east to the Mediterranean just downstream from Tortosa in the famous delta. The Duero flows west and becomes the Douro in Portugal before hitting the Atlantic – Zamora is the last major city on the Duero in Spain. I have once again selected the no toll road route – it’s also the shortest by 50 km. And it proved to be an oenological odyssey. It also gave me a theory about the colours of the Spanish flag – as they used to say on Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne: “The answer lies in the soil”. Few of you will recall these but they were very funny radio shows. The soil is either pale golden yellow or deep red throughout my journey today. The wine route bit? I started in the denomination Terra Alta which includes yesterday’s winery where, as in Penedes the day before, the vines are showing lots of green leaf. As I cross from Catalunya into Aragon we enter Cariñena and on into Calatayud. Here there are a few shoots but the fields are mostly low black vines. Much of the rest of Aragon seems devoted to grain production with fields displaying 30 cm shoots in the most wonderful variety of greens. Whether they are different seeds or just different stages I didn’t stop to ask – in fact I didn’t stop apart for breakfast so no pictures for this section – I’ll have to paint them with words. These greens range from bright lime green like euphorbia flowers, through emerald and forest through to a dark steely bluish green. I really did want to stop because these greens against the newly ploughed bright red fields looked amazing and went on and on. Sadly, although there wasn’t much traffic on the N234, the sides have very steep run offs to discourage the practice of stopping. Then we popped into Castile y Leon and Ribera de Duero right next door to the Rioja where there was no hint of a shoot. We’d just gone through a pass at 1060 km above sea level so even spring is quite chilly up here. One day I will go to Peñafiel the heart of Ribera de Deuro which has a massive castle and loads of great looking bodegas dotted beside the excellent CL116 – a truly great drive – must have been made by the Romans. There are a few stretches of road which are designated A11 – Autovia del Duero but lots of  it has been started and looks like the money ran out. There are a lot of unfinished projects of all kinds that reflect the poor state of Spain’s economy but the ones the do finish are very impressive. Once into Valladolid province it’s all Rueda where the verdejo grapes produce their own fine wines and are shipped next door to make white riojas. Then once we cross into Zamora province it’s Toro made from its eponymous grape the vines of which are showing small shoots. Zamora of course also has its own DOC but I’m not sure I’ve tried it – maybe it would be rude not to.

I make it to the parador in time to set up the computer and listen to Watford at Leicester on Hornets Player but I have a premonition and the plethora of cafés in the sunny Plaza Mayor with the promise of a beer win out. I did keep an eye on the progress and was pleased to hear that the crowd were chanting Quique Sanchez Flores – oh that they would bring him back. Anyone but Mazzari next season please – no I don’t mean that. There’s a long list of managers we don’t want. 3-0 again conceding in extra time. Not good enough. IMG_2409

By the way this parador is not a castle but the palace of the Dukes of Alba and Aliste – quite impressive though.

IMG_2408There’s a massive wedding on today so the normally elegant courtyard has an inflatable gonk bouncy castle. Well it keeps the kids out of the bar! Fortunately our favourite resident is still in place and I might take him for a ride around the ramparts tomorrow.

IMG_2404

Zamora is a beautiful Romanesque town with the largest concentration of churches in that style in Europe. 24 of them all built in the 12th and 13th centuries – so that’s tomorrow’s photo blog. It’s due to be 27° so it might be shorts and sandals and a gentle walk about. Or inside several of them for a cool moment.

IMG_7794Right next to the parador is the Teatro Ramos Carrion which was a ruined hulk last time we were here. It’s been restored, had a modern extension added and  created a new square with views over the Duero. It reopened to the public last year. There’s also another theme of these blogs that followed me to Zamora – the modernisme (oops that’s Catalan – modernismo) trail.

And given I ventured into hydrology on the Ebro in the last blog it’s worth noting that the Duero in Zamora also has a diagonal diverting weir to regulate the flow which you can spot along with the ruins of the first bridge dating from Roman times.

And now we’re out west another fascination for me is storks’ nests. They seem to like church towers in this shape (1) and it’s not often you get above one (2) at feeding time. This one (3) was just around the corner but they had to make do with the lower slopes of this glossy spire (4).

Zamora has one restaurant with a Michelin star and Dee and I dined here the last time we were here together celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. Guess where I’m off to tonight!

Anniversary blog and the day that history was rewritten

41 sushi pink  Can it really be 

          a whole year since we boarded

          B A 0 0 5?

I started writing this on 9 April the anniversary of our departure on the trip to Japan last year which has been described in this blog. 
However life, work and extraneous factors intervened. It's now July 3 and we're in Boston, MA about which more a little later.

9 April 2013 was indeed the day we flew from Heathrow for our eventful, amazing and never-to-be-forgotten trip to Japan. How we wish we were going again but the exigencies of budget and work will keep us here this year. My long absence from the blog has been due to a number of circumstances including  limited social life and lots of writing for others rather than me or you.

However with spring in the air at last after the direst start to any year – ultra low return from our solar panels prove how grey it has been – it feels like time to take up my pen again. And then I got another urgent job for which I had to complete the first part of this week. The year has been so strange we’ve hardly been to any Watford matches relying instead on our friend Fran’s excellent blogs to keep us up to date with our team’s progress. No playoff excitement this year but some promising developments.

We did manage to go to our away game in Bournemouth back in January when we were excited by the prospect of the Japanese exhibits in the Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. It’s a lovely eclectic collection assembled by one of the last great entrepreneur-travellers who gathered object that took his and his wife’s fancy from wherever the went – mostly in the Far East. The Japanese room had hundreds of objects but contained behind a perspex corridor along which you could inch your way and peer form side to side. Not ideal but with some glimpses of very interesting artefacts and scrolls.

Our taste for things Japanese was also fuelled by the mention of a Japanese garden on Margaret Island in Budapest where we went for a three night break on a very good deal from Groupon. The garden itself was a disappointment but not so Budapest although we did find cherry blossom. After an unpromising start with the first sign we saw emerging from the airport being a Tesco hypermarket,

Entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts
Entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts

Budapest proved to be a delightful place to spend a few days. We made a concert with the Hilliard ensemble still in good voice all those years after their chart appearance with Jan Garbarek’s saxophone accompaniment in the incredible Vigado Concert Hall which re-opened two days before we arrived. It’s all gilt and marble and pillars and a total contrast to the Erkel theatre where we caught an excellent ballet programme the next night. Built as the People’s Opera during the communist era its clean lines and lack of adornment made it a very pleasant place to watch great performances of three Jiri Kylian works.

The highspot was a visit to the Szechenyi Baths a massive complex of thermal baths where we sat in a grand open air pool with water temperatures of 35 degrees and the air at 24 – fabulous.

Dee about to enter Szechenyi Baths
Dee about to enter Szechenyi Baths

By the Chain Bridge
By the Chain Bridge

Architectural and culinary treasures abound and it’s definitely on the list for a return visit. Any of you who watch Drama on ITV sponsored by Viking River Cruises have seen the spotlit Chain Bridge, Buda Castle and Parliament Building modelled on the HP in London but with even more filigree.

Parliament from bus

We’ve been to more discussions and book launches at the Japan Foundation, entered a competition to win flights to Japan at the Japan Centre and discovered the joys – shared by grandchildren – of curry flavoured rice crackers.

Dee in the Garsington Garden
Dee in the Garsington Garden

I’d heard of an opera in a country house in Oxfordshire some years ago but when a friend of ours Susanna told us she was its musical director we just had to go. Garsington Opera is very much Glyndebourne for the northern home counties but more bohemian in approach and audience. It’s now based on the Getty family’s Wormsley Estate just off the M40 past High Wycombe. The estate is also home to a fabulous cricket oval on which England women beat Australia last year in the first match of the Ashes. The extensive grounds are lined with picnic spots and restaurant marquees bringing a medieval feel to the whole thing. We were blessed with a fine day although it did get a bit breezy so we were glad we’d opted for in-marquee dining at the interval.The opera takes place in a glass pavilion which makes for a unique viewing experience in that performances start in broad daylight and then it gradually gets darker as the evening progresses. We saw Fidelio and in a great piece of theatre the released prisoners in Act 1 actually walk straight out of the auditorium and lounge about in the garden outside. Susanna was able to join us for dinner after warming up the chorus at the start of the interval so we had a great opportunity to catch up with her.

IMG_0464
Mike by the cricket ground

The Opera Pavilion
The Opera Pavilion

Field of feasting tents
Field of feasting tents

I’ve been doing quite a bit of work for a Dutch publishing agency so took a day trip to Utrecht to meet them and an end-client. I flew from Southend airport which I scarcely knew existed but which was obviously very popular with a certain set. My thinking that there would be nobody there and I’d whizz through security after the hour’s drive from home was abruptly punctured by the sight of a bride and a retinue of bridesmaids; eight men in tiger onesies and a gaggle of guys with cork-trimmed hats. Then a look at the departure board for the three morning flights – Amsterdam, Krakow and Mallorca – and I knew I was in the stag and hen departure capital of Essex.

The flight was quick and the train connection from Schipol to Utrecht couldn’t have been easier. Clean, smooth and on time, I thought I was back in Japan. I had a few moments to stroll with my agency contact through the streets of Utrecht which is a cobbled, canal-threaded city with a vibrant street life. Tekst 2000 enjoy canalside offices in a vaulted cellar with a long hot desk for their colleagues and people like me. We went off to visit the client in Culemborg via a chain ferry so it was a day of just about every mode of transport.

20 years ago I was derided by newly made US friends for flying back to the UK on July 4 after my preliminary recce visit for what was to become Direct English. “Don’t you know we have the best fireworks show in the world on July 4?” Oops. So deciding to celebrate the Fourth of July properly this year we arrived in Boston as planned only to find that the firework display has been moved to July 3 to avoid being washed out by Hurricane Arthur. So history is rewritten and the War of Independence ended a day early – at least this year in Boston.

More about the trip to follow.

Hong Kong stopover

32 sushi pink After a bad day                                  

              can we find tranquillity                                  

              out in brash Hong Kong?

Sorry for the hiatus any anxious readers but family fun in Hong Kong,
travelling back to London and going straight back to work have interrupted
the blogging process. This one will describe the four days we spent in 
Hong Kong and then there will be occasional posts and new pages with 
extra photographs and details of some of the highlights of the trip.

So after a Thursday to forget (except for home cooked dinner by Tom) we wake up at their amazing apartment on the 27 th floor with views to the harbour on one side and over the whole of the Happy Valley race course and sports area from the living room. I was impressed by Hong Kong thirty years ago. Now most of the buildings I saw have been demolished and replaced by even taller ones. It is  a truly phenomenal city in the sky. If you’ve ever played SimCity you’ve been  to Hong Kong! We spent the morning exploring Central – walking through the clammy streets, up the huge travelator that swoops up to the Mid Levels and then through the air conditioned malls and walkways that enable you to survive in the city. 27 degrees and 97% humidity make air conditioning not a luxury but a necessity. And by careful planning you can go most places in comfort. Tom, now a HK veteran of two years has it all sussed so we move through the city cool, calm and collected. We then make our way back to Causeway Bay to see a Hong Kong institution – the Noonday Gun. This is a tradition carried out since the 1860s when Jardines, one of the major Hong Kong trading companies was ordered by a British naval officer to fire a one gun salute at noon every day as a punishment for insulting the navy by saluting a civilian.

IMG_3345  IMG_3350

Synchronizing watches                                                      and bang!                                               

We arrived and took up our positions, watched the gunners carefully check their watches and then jumped like mad when a very loud report and a big puff of smoke issued forth. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s still a real shock. We then walked round to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club one of the most sought after memberships in the territory. We are very lucky in that Paul Dalton, a good friend of Tom and Caroline, whom I had met in London, had invited us for a relaxing elegant lunch. Feeling very privileged, we enjoy fabulous views of Victoria Harbour and partake of food from an interestingly mixed buffet and menu which combine British colonial favourites with local specialities. Lunch was unhurried, conversation flowed and ranged over many issues and the whole was presided over with graceful charm by Paul. As we left, the famous Hong Kong rain came down, hard and vertical and, as elsewhere in the world, dissolved all trace of taxis from the streets. Eventually one parted the curtain and took us away for a little light sightseeing and then back to the apartment for a break which included watching the most incredible clouds pour down over Happy Valley.

IMG_3370  IMG_3379

We then changed for the evening which was at an equally interesting venue – the China Club. It appears not to have a working website but has an intro and picture in its sister club’s site for Singapore. Set in the former headquarters building of the Bank of China it’s a retro eye-opener with stair and landing walls lined with modern art from owner Sir David Tang’s collection – an eclectic taste is displayed. There’s a roof terrace with fabulous views over night time Hong Kong and a vast dining room with superb food and a series of fascinating shows – a torch singer who whispers jazz classics, not always quite in tune but certainly the centre of attention. She is followed by two guys – one doing amazing things pouring tea from a very long teapot into cups that he’s juggling while contorting his body; the other makes fine noodles from a massive slab of dough by repeated slapping and pulling. Amazing. IMG_3388  Chanteuse China Club Teapot man China Club   Noodleman China Club  IMG_3418

Apart from the club’s entertainment, a highlight was the chance to catch up with Steve and Michelle Resco. Dee and I had worked closely with Steve in helping to establish the Watford Supporters’ Trust ten years ago. It was Steve who engineered our viewing of Watford v Leeds in Roppongi the week before and it was great to catch up with lives lived all over the place since we last spent time together. Home for a nightcap and a lengthy sleep. Saturday took us for a wander through the wet markets of Causeway Bay an easy walk down from the apartment. Eyeballs were stretched by the sheer volume of food of every kind being chopped, skinned, sliced and in some cases slaughtered right there on the street. One aspect of Hong Kong eating became abundantly clear – whatever you selected it was amazingly fresh – fish still flopping not frozen – one even jumped off the slab and was retrieved by an unfazed Chinese senior citizen.   IMG_3431  IMG_3445

We walked on to meet up with Caroline who had to go to work in the morning but was able to join us for a splendid lunch at one of their favourite restaurants Din Tai Fung. Of Taiwanese origin, it serves a mixture of dim sum style dumplings, buns and wan ton, excellent dan dan noodles, cucumber with chilli and garlic and the best ever egg fried rice as Tom had promised. I had loved Hong Kong’s trams thirty years ago so we took a ride along to the Star Ferry.

47IMG_3465  IMG_3466  IMG_3488

Crossing the harbour on the ferry is an essential part of any visit to Hong Kong and once again it didn’t disappoint. We made the journey across to Kowloon, passing the large inflatable Rubber Duck  – Florentijn Hoffman’s installation which has mysteriously deflated since our visit – not guilty m’lud. We then make our way to the ICC Tower and go up to the observation deck. Despite a certain murkiness in the distance the views are fabulous and we were reminded that at 484 metres high it’s the tallest building in Hong Kong and the fifth tallest in the world rather dwarfing London’s Shard at 309 metres. We also look down on one of the most densely populated areas of land in the world.

IMG_3505  IMG_3523  IMG_3518

On descending I caught the Airport Express out to Chep Lak Kok to collect my phone, miraculously delivered to Hong Kong from Tokyo through the combined efforts of Japan Rail’s Narita Express, China Eastern Airways and Jardine handling staff in Hong Kong. I sign for it, switch it on and, goodness it works. So I text Tom to tell him I’m homeward bound and he advises the subway and a brief walk when I make it back to Hong Kong island as the traffic is mad and they are not even home yet. The MTR – Hong Kong’s subway – seems very efficient during my brief encounter with it. The only problem as in Tokyo, was that you seem to have walked at least far enough to reach your final destination but you’ve just been travelling through a vast underground interchange. My next walk was a little warmer as I followed Tom’s excellent texted directions to get myself from Causeway Bay station back to the Leighton Hill apartment to be rewarded with a cold beer for my efforts. After a brief rest and a change we set off by taxi for another fabulous evening. Tom and Caroline won’t be able to be in the UK in July so very kindly took us for a joint birthday dinner at Spoon, Alain Ducasse’s Michelin starred restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel back in Kowloon. A brilliant tasting menu with matched wines proved a great choice as course after course arrived with delicious aromas and tastes. The whole occasion was enhanced by our prime window table from which we could watch the nightly Victoria Harbour Light Show. Produced by Hong Kong Tourism it was eagerly anticipated by the crowds below us on the waterfront. The light patterns on individual buildings and the lasers flying between them make it look as if the city is holding a conversation between the huge towers that line the harbour. What a fabulous birthday present!

Sunday meant an early rise to go to Deepwater Bay to support Tom and his dragon boat racing team The Seagods. Tom took up dragon boating soon after moving out two years ago and has international medals for his efforts. And what efforts they are! Watching twenty men and women striving to move this great boat through the water from a standing start shows raw energy at work at its best. And it pays off as the Seagods comfortably win their first race with the A boat. An hour later Tom again plays a part in bringing the B boat in as runner up in a further heat. The sight of the beach covered with team tents, paddlers and their supporters is colourful and constantly moving as teams make their way to and from the start and finish pontoon.

IMG_3540  IMG_3541 IMG_3543 IMG_3547  IMG_3586

Tom had made his apologies to the Seagods for only completing two races out of a possible five today in order to take us to explore the island further. We went to Stanley which feels much like Brighton, with narrow-laned markets, a promenade with pubs and restaurants and a pier which was reconstructed here from its original position in Central in 2006 along with the Murray House also originally built in Central in 1844 as Murray Barracks. They fit the landscape well and look as if they might always have been there.

IMG_3597 IMG_3603

We had the opportunity to share a drink with Katie, Tom and Caroline’s friend, who had given us so much good advice for our trip which was great as we were able to thank her in person, not just by email, for her insights. Katie had to go off elsewhere and so couldn’t join us for lunch in Saigon, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in the Murray Building. After lunch we wandered around the headland to the Tin Hau Temple commemorating the goddess of the sea. It’s cut into the rock and was obviously a popular pilgrimage destination. We then returned to the much larger Man Ho Temple on the edge of Stanley Plaza where Lamborghini’s 2013 Cow Parade has raised considerable sums for charity.

IMG_3629  IMG_3647  IMG_3665

After a great day out by the sea we decided on a simple dinner at home and a serious spell of packing for Dee and myself so we went back to Happy Valley taking in architect Frank Gehry’s first residential project in Asia Opus, a fabulous twisted tower that looks as if it has survived an earthquake. Its lines flow out of the steep hills that characterize Hong Kong island and for those wealthy enough to be inside must provide stunning views. After a trip to the butcher we then walk home through the middle of the Happy Valley racecourse which is busy with sports activity of all kinds. IMG_3681

IMG_3690It’s great to spend another evening at home with  Tom and Caroline not least because Tom managed to find a website streaming Sky Sports coverage of the second leg of Watford’s play off against Leicester. And what a match that was with what has been termed “the greatest comeback ever in the world of football” with its double penalty save and brilliant counter attack for the winning Watford goal. Having missed out on the end of the season at least we’ll get one more game this season – at Wembley. Come on You Orns!

I don’t know what it is with travel days but, as we retired early ahead of a six o’clock taxi departure for the airport, I confidently set the alarm on my newly recovered phone for 05:00. To our horror we are rudely awakened very soon after retiring. We get up, shower quietly and attend to final bits of packing. As I go to make a coffee I notice the kitchen clock blinking 04:20 at me. My phone was still on Tokyo time – an hour ahead of Hong Kong. Oops again. We set off as planned, are seen off by Tom and have excellent flights with Singapore Airlines back to Heathrow. The leg from Singapore to London was on the A380 double-decker plane about which Dee had worked on a documentary a few years back and had actually been in Toulouse for its maiden flight. The upper  deck is all business and first class and they wouldn’t even let us go up and peek but never mind. A pre-arranged taxi met us at the airport and whisked us home in time to see that our Wembley opponents will be Crystal Palace, retire and prepare for work the next day.

It has been a wonderful month and one we won’t forget with its food, friendship and fascination allied with our quest to find out more about Murakami’s Japan. I think the trip can be called a success. We’ve enjoyed sharing it and getting your reactions and comments.